Death row inmate asks to be executed by firing squad instead of lethal injection

He argues the process would be less painful.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File

An inmate on death row in Atlanta, Georgia has asked to be executed by firing squad rather than by lethal injection, arguing that being shot will be a less painful way to die.

J.W. Ledford Jr. is scheduled to die on Tuesday and made the request via his lawyers. Ledford takes the drug gabapentin for nerve pain, which alters brain chemistry. Once the drug used for lethal injection kicks in, Ledford’s lawyers say, pain levels will be higher than normal.

“Mr. Ledford proposes that the firing squad is a readily implemented and more reliable alternative method of execution that would eliminate the risks posed to him by lethal injection,” Ledford’s attorneys argued in court papers filed last week.

Thirty-one states and the federal government allow for the death penalty, and all provide lethal injection as the primary execution method.

But the method can be notoriously agonizing even without added complications stemming from taking gabapentin.

Ledford is not the first to claim that the process may cause unnecessary pain levels. Many medical professionals, who are prohibited from participating in executions under their code of ethics, have argued that lethal injection is a horrifying and inhumane way to execute prisoners — one that, depending on drugs and dosage used, can cause immense suffering amounting to torture.


Lethal injection has been the favored way to execute prisoners in the United States and around the globe since it was created in Oklahoma in 1977 as a more humane alternative to traditional methodologies like hanging, firing squads, and the electric chair. However, a complex set of challenges that create barriers to effectively administering these injections — including strict codes of medical ethics, drug shortages, and swelling international opposition to the death penalty — have led to several high-profile cases of botched executions.

The 2014 death of Dennis McGuire, whose agonizing 25 minute death was the longest Ohio had seen since reinstating capital punishment, points to the heart of what opponents of lethal injection argue: lethal injection may sound more medicalized, and thus more humane, but the reality is one of messy complication, and, often, extreme pain.

Most medical professionals are banned from participating in executions due to ethics concerns. Many organizations feel taking the life of a human conflicts with the Hippocratic Oath, and the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology, and the American Nurses Association all prohibit their members from the practice. As a result, medical professionals are rarely if ever found in execution chambers.

That means executioners themselves can be part of the problem. As one anesthesiologist told Slate in 2014, there are rarely experts in the room, meaning states often rely on executioners who “are fundamentally incompetent” and “have neither the technical skill nor the cognitive ability to [carry out the process] properly.”


Also alarming are the backchannel methods states are increasingly resorting to in order to obtain drugs, as once-reliable options overseas disappear.

International opposition to the death penalty remains strong. Western Europe has abolished the practice and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has called for an end to executions around the globe. In 2016, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, marking the sixth time in the past decade that such a moratorium has been adopted. Notably, the United States cast a “nay” vote. But increasingly, that vote is being challenged.

In 2011, the European Union, which is against the death penalty, imposed an export ban on lethal injection drugs. While the ban hasn’t halted the use of the death penalty in the United States, it has thrown a wrench in executions.

“The [European Union] embargo has slowed down, but not stopped executions,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C, told the Atlantic in 2014. “It has made the states seem somewhat desperate and not in control, putting the death penalty in a negative light, with an uncertain future.”

Actions like these have led to mounting hurdles for states trying to obtain the drugs necessary for lethal injection. Expiration is another problem at hand — something that has spurred increasingly drastic measures in some states. In March, Arkansas, moving to quickly use up a supply of drugs prior to expiration, announced plans to execute eight men over a 10-day period using midazolam, an infamous three-drug cocktail blamed for a number of botched executions. Three years ago, death row inmate Clayton Lockett suffered a heart attack when midazolam malfunctioned during his execution; he died nearly 45 minutes after being sedated.

As the fight over lethal injection becomes increasingly polarizing, states are looking for other execution methods. For some, this means a return to past norms, with gas chambers, electrocution, and, yes, firing squads, being floated as potential alternatives.

“[T]here is a substantial risk that Mr Ledford will be aware and in agony as the pentobarbital attacks his respiratory system, depriving his brain, heart, and lungs of oxygen as he drowns in his own saliva,” Ledford’s lawyers wrote.

Until 2017, Utah and Oklahoma were the only states that listed firing squad as an option in death penalty cases. But other states may soon offer death by firing squad. U.S. News & World Report reported in March that several Southern states were considering bringing back the practice. In February, a bill in Mississippi calling for the reintroduction of firing squads (as well as electrocution and gas chambers) passed the state House. Aiming to address Mississippi’s increasing difficulty in acquiring execution drugs, the bill initially failed to clear the state Senate, only to later pass in March.


In February, Alabama death row inmate Thomas Arthur requested death by firing squad, but his request was denied by the Supreme Court.

For his part, Ledford is unlikely to have his request for a firing squad execution granted, in no small part because attorneys for the state of Georgia seem underwhelmed by the timing of his request. “If plaintiff really thought the firing squad was a reasonable alternative,” lawyers wrote, “he could have alerted the State years, instead of 5 days, before his execution.”

Ledford’s legal team feels otherwise, and are arguing that the suffering lethal injection would cause him agony that would violate the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“[T]here is a substantial risk that Mr Ledford will be aware and in agony as the pentobarbital attacks his respiratory system, depriving his brain, heart, and lungs of oxygen as he drowns in his own saliva,” Ledford’s lawyers wrote.